ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia, April 14--It was the women and children of Ethiopia--their gaunt, malnourished faces stretched thin around hunger-haunted and imploringeyes--who brought the stark specter of Third World famine into America's living room in the early 1980s.

Now, following three years of drought and poverty, those faces areback.

"The elderly, nursing mothers and the very young in the droughtareas are already very vulnerable," said Francis Stephanos, the EastAfrica director of Lutheran World Relief. "Help now is much better thanhelp later."

Ethiopia is one of the poorest and least developed countries in theworld. In particular, those dependent on the nation's agriculture-basedeconomy are put at risk during the frequent periods of drought. Othercountries in the Horn of Africa region--including Eritrea, Tanzania andBurundi--are also affected. The United Nations estimates as many as 16million people are at risk of famine.

Relief experts say as many as 800,000 people in Ethiopia are alreadythreatened with starvation and, if the crisis escalates into afull-blown famine, as many as 8 million of the country's 60 millionpeople could be affected. The U.N. World Food Program has estimated 8million people are in need of food aid.

Relief agencies are pouring millions into the country in an effortto halt the crisis from turning into a disaster.

Lutheran World Relief is joining with Roman Catholic and Orthodoxrelief agencies in a $32 million program to secure, transport anddistribute some 89,000 metric tons of food.

"Catholic Relief Services is acting to halt this emergency before itbecomes a tragedy," said Ken Hackett, executive director of CatholicRelief Services.

"Our brothers and sisters in Ethiopia are suffering frommalnutrition and disease and we are working with our local partners toprovide them with the most fundamental human needs--food, water andshelter."

Nigel Marsh, regional spokesman for World Vision International, theevangelical relief agency, said the situation in some parts of Ethiopia,especially along the border area with Somalia, "is dire.

"Signs of an emerging disaster, such as children on the brink ofdeath, are evident in many areas," he added.

World Vision is appealing to donors for $10 million in relief aid,including 43,000 tons of food for Ethiopia alone.

Ethiopian government officials say they say the disaster-in-waitingcan be averted if donor nations step up food supplies to the pipelinethe United Nations, relief agencies and the Ethiopian government has putin place.

"Pledges and promises made in the last few days give us a realisticchance of averting disaster," Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawisaid on Thursday. "I do not believe there will be famine inthis country."

But even as pledges are made and relief groups scramble to raise thefunds to buy the food and other supplies necessary to avert the tragedy,Ethiopia's longstanding feud with Eritrea bids to upset, or at leastmake much complicated, the aid effort.

"Current food distribution efforts have been hampered by the warbetween Ethiopia and Eritrea, as the most convenient distribution routepasses through war zones," Catholic Relief Services said.

On Friday, U.N. special envoy Catherine Bertini said thatland-locked Ethiopia's refusal to allow the use of Eritrean ports forunloading relief supplies could further hamper the relief effort.

Bertini has asked the Ethiopian government to permit it to use theEritrean port of Assab for the transmission of 800,000 tons of food aid--a request the government has refused to grant.

Ethiopia and Eritrea have been at war since 1998 and the Ethiopiangovernment is currently spending an estimated $1 million a day on themilitary effort--money some Western diplomats say could be put tobetter use.

In addition to food, the World Health Organization said medical care is also desperately needed in Ethiopia. Friday, the WHO appealed for $6.5 million to provide medical help in Ethiopia for the next three months.

Spokesman Valery Abramov said both drugs and more medical personnel wereneeded in the country.

"It appears that diarrheal diseases represent the biggest threat, aswell as respiratory diseases, measles, meningitis and possiblycholera," said Abramov.

World Food Program spokeswoman Christiane Berthiaume said her agency hadso far received 60 percent of the financial contributions it needed tomeet its commitment to supply 250,000 tons of aid to Ethiopia this year.But, she added, commitments elsewhere in the world meant that the WFPcould only supply a third of the food that was needed in Ethiopia."More and more people are at risk because the rains have not come," the U.

N.'s Bertini said. "We will be coming back in the next fewweeks with additional requests. We do not know how much more will berequested, it needs to be further assessed...but I expect it will bemore than 100,000 tons.